Mark 2:23-26 “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath? He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for the priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’”
The Pharisees reaction may seem odd to us. It’s not that they believed the disciples were “stealing” this grain. The law of Moses allowed you to take a little meal’s worth of grain from the edges of the field next to the road. In 30 A.D. there weren’t truck stops at every exit along the road with overcooked hotdogs and bags of chips inside. Part of being a member of God’s nation was letting your neighbor get a bite to eat at the edge of your field. It was considered godly hospitality. The next time you were traveling, you might want to borrow a few bites of barley from someone’s else’s field.
The issue for the Pharisees was, “Aren’t the disciples sinning by working on the Sabbath?” You may know that the Pharisees had added 613 of their own laws to God’s commandments. We might call them “applications.” God had framed the Sabbath in simple terms in the Bible. Take a day of rest. Everybody gets a day off work, even mom in the kitchen. Use the time, at least some of it, to get together for worship. That was as much as the Lord had to say on the topic.
Years later, the Pharisees added their official “applications” so that people would know how to keep God’s law. Since the Bible didn’t define “work,” the Pharisees defined it for you. If you carried a teaspoon full of grain back to your house from a field, that was small enough not to be considered work. But any more than that would be considered sinful harvesting on the Sabbath. You could eat a radish on the Sabbath, but you were warned against dipping it in salt, because if you left it in the salt too long that could be pickling the radish, and pickling was considered work. You could spit on a rock on the Sabbath, but you weren’t supposed to spit on the dirt, because that made mud, and mud was used as mortar for bricks, and making mortar for bricks was considered work. I’m not making this stuff up.
If you asked the Pharisees, “Why did the Lord give us the Sabbath?” they would answer, “So that we can keep God happy with us by what we do.” The more careful you were, the more you deprived yourself for him, the better they believed your relationship with God to be. As they saw it, after the first mouthful of grain or so, the disciples were over the line into sinful harvesting of that field. They were breaking the Sabbath.
Jesus saw things differently. He doesn’t argue about silly definitions of “work.” He doesn’t bring up the Sabbath at all. He objects to the Pharisees’ concept of how God’s law works. The law was not meant to make you hungry, or keep you away from life’s necessities. It wasn’t God’s method for inflicting pain.
When David and his fighting men showed up at God’s house without any food, the priest didn’t send them away hungry. He shared the special bread with them. This isn’t what the law said to do. And David and his men would not likely have starved in a single day. But the priest understood what the law was supposed to do: provide food for the priests. He also understood what it was not supposed to do: prevent other people from having food. So he was not condemned for giving David the bread.
This is why Jesus frames the issue this way: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was intended to give tired bodies a day of much needed rest. More than that, it provided rest for the souls of God’s people and nurtured their relationship with him.
Even in the Old Testament, when God’s people gathered for worship and read Moses, they heard about the Lord, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. They sang in the psalms about the God who does not treat us as our sins deserve. As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us. The word of the prophets pointed them to the coming Messiah, who would be wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. By his wounds we are healed.
This is the same Jesus we gather to worship today. We do not go to church to try to impress him. We go to receive his forgiveness and grace. Sunday may be a different day on the weekly calendar than the Sabbath, but it is still a day when the Lord of the Sabbath supplies our soul’s true need.